The Origins of the Focused Conversation Method, excerpted from Getting to the Bottom of ToP, by Wayne and Jo Nelson

From Chapter 2:
As a body of knowledge, the Technology of Participation (ToP) is applied phenomenology, or what has been called a “phenomenology of practice” or “experiential phenomenology.”
Since its inception and because of its content-less nature, experiential phenomenology has been applied to a wide variety of professional fields. With roots in academia and use in research and writing projects in many fields, experiential phenomenology has been applied in many professions as the major approach to their practice. The earliest were psychology and psychiatry, closely followed by education, various aspects of health and medicine, as well as community and organizational development, management consulting and many others.
ToP methodology has been primarily focused on organizational and community development and public consultation, dialogue and engagement. The consistent application of a phenomenological approach led to the formation of a unique methodology through a series of major steps. This chapter traces the formation and development of ToP methods as applied phenomenology.
The Dynamics of Being
…Another of the earliest sources for what became ToP methods came for the work of Søren Kierkegaard.  ICA summarized it slightly in this phrase:
“The self is a relation, which in relating itself to itself, and willing itself to be itself, is grounded transparently in the power which posited it.”
The assertion can be broken down into three distinct parts that we can unpack gradually:

  • Beginning—The self is a relation,
  • Middle—which, in relating itself to itself and willing itself to be itself,
  • End—is grounded transparently in the power which posits it.

From Chapter 5 of Getting to the Bottom of ToP:
In a university classroom discussing Picasso’s Spanish Civil War painting Guernica, Joe Mathews asked his students to describe the objects in the painting. Then he invited them to notice their inner responses. “OK,” he said, “Now I want you to think about what sound you hear coming from the painting. I’m going to count to three, and then each of you make the sound you hear. Make it as loud or as quiet as you feel it should be. Ready? One, two, three!”—and the room exploded in howls of pain and rage. The door of the classroom flew open and two students from the hallway stuck their heads in, their expressions resembling the faces in the painting itself. In stunned silence, they heard the teacher ask, “Where do you see this painting going on in your life?”
The results were startling. These students had thought of art as “a cultural thing” or “a decorative object.” Now they saw their lives intimately reflected in the art form. They saw the art form as a force challenging their habitual stance towards life. One participant said, “Suddenly I saw that this was making a claim on me. It was saying, ‘Wake up and live your real life.’”
In her studies of art and the mind, philosopher Susanne Langer explored these layers of awareness. When we interact with art, we participate in a dialogue that includes the artist, the work and ourselves as the observers. As we look or listen, we observe not only the work of art, but our own interior responses. We take in the elements and we note our surprise, revulsion or delight. Bringing our responses and intuitions to consciousness enables us to feel the experience more deeply and peel back the layers to discover meaning. Joe Mathews discussed these layers of awareness with Susanne Langer in a number of conversations.
In the 1960s ICA colleagues began applying these principles to conversations in classrooms and study groups, as they saw the possibility for the very stuff of contemporary culture to enable deep reflection. Painting, sculpture, poetry, narrative literature, drama and film were all used as gateways to insight, helping people find ways to relate to their own life situations. The conversations guided people through their own layers of meaning.
The art form conversation begins with a clear, tangible object of focus—a work of art like a poem, story, painting, sculpture or film—and explores an individual’s perceptions, responses and associations as a gateway to profound reflection on the dimensions of one’s own life illuminated by the particular art form. People first respond to questions that allow them to observe the art form and articulate what they actually heard or saw, allowing the creator of the art work to “have their say.” Subsequent questions give them a chance to look just as seriously at their own responses, feelings, memories and associations triggered by the work, as well as the personal questions that are raised for them. That reflection provides the platform for exploring insight and meaning, leading to deeper understanding and substantial commitment.
After extensive experience with these conversations on art forms, ICA colleagues began to realize that the events that happen to people that they want to talk about are a different kind of art form. We could use the same method for talking about any topic and exploring its deeper meaning and our relationship as human beings to it. Thus the art form conversation morphed into the most fundamental component of the body of knowledge of what is now known as the Technology of Participation (ToP™): the focused conversation method.
The phenomenology behind the focused conversation method
The ToP focused conversation method begins with a specific topic and a tangible beginning point. Beyond that, the content comes from the participants, who bring to the conversation some degree of diversity in their life experiences. The questions move the conversation through stages of perception, response, judgment and decision, which apply the phenomenological method (see “Phenomenology as method” in Chapter 2) of starting with what is observed through the external senses, expanding consciousness to the internal response, and then extrapolating patterns of meaning, and finally responding to the situation.
At each level, participants are asked questions to draw them into deeper understanding. The pattern of “surface to depth” runs through each level of the method as well as through the four levels of the method as a whole.
Each of these four levels demonstrates the hallmarks of phenomenology: intentional focus, radical openness, and methods of inquiry (as discussed in Chapter 3)
For more on this topic, you can purchase Getting to the Bottom of ToP from iUniverse at

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